The Merrie Monarch Festival encompasses more than just the fourteen minutes spent on stage during the program. In this mo‘olelo, KS Cultural Planning and Assessment Manager Miala Leong KSK’02 shares treasured memories of her hālau – Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima under the direction of Kumu Hula Māpuana de Silva – and participation in the annual hula competition. Above, Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima performs “Ka Lae ʻo Alāla” in the kahiko competition of the 2019 Merrie Monarch Festival. Photo courtesy of Big Island Now.
In this Kūkahekahe, KS Cultural Planning and Assessment Manager Miala Leong KSK’02 shares treasured memories of her hālau and participation in the annual Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition. The 2021 Merrie Monarch Festival broadcast airs from July 1-3 on KFVE.
For more than 30 years, I’ve been incredibly privileged to dance hula for Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima under the direction of Kumu Hula Māpuana de Silva. Like other young keiki, my mākua selected hula and this hālau for me. As I grew up, I chose hula as a priority and my main extracurricular activity. Many of the most formative experiences in my life happened because of hula. From practices to huakaʻi, lei workshops to ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi classes, there was always something new to see, do or learn.
I’ve also been fortunate to participate in some hula festivals and competitions, including the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. From its genesis in 1971, the festival grew in popularity and scale, and is now celebrating its 58th year. My Merrie Monarch experiences stem from fourteen of those years.
These memories are not only made during our time in Hilo, but also through our hālau preparations leading up to the festival: methodically measuring and applying painter’s tape to a high school gym floor on Oʻahu so we can practice dancing in formations as we will on the stage at Edith Kanakaʻole Tennis Stadium; practicing kahiko on the little offshore islet of Mokuola in Hilo Bay and getting fully drenched by the Kanilehua rain; making new lei palapalai to replace the one that accidentally froze in the lei cooler; the quiet ritual of putting away my lāʻī skirt after practice, straightening over 100 leaves and spritzing each with water before enfolding the skirt in a large trash bag and rolling it up neatly – these are snapshots of the many moments I hold dear.
Every year we participate in Merrie Monarch – now over 40 years for Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima – there are both familiar and new experiences. And along the way, I’ve acquired items that always bring memories of Merrie Monarch to mind.
Each participating hālau is required to provide standard information in hard copy to the judges and the Merrie Monarch organization. This includes the hālau name, names of dancers, descriptions of costuming and lei, and explanations of all the mele being presented. Besides submitting this ʻike to the judges, my kumu always gives the dancers their own copy, which we read and absorb with enthusiasm. These fact sheets lend insight into the history and deeper meanings of the mele we present, and they’ve become some of my most valued hula reference materials.
Lole, or costumes, vary from year to year and are selected by our kumu. Sometimes we use lole from the hālau’s existing collection; other years, new garments are made. I love wearing costumes that my hula aunties wore once upon a time. It’s fun to peek at whose name is written in black Sharpie on the inner flap of a pāʻū or the back of a pair of bloomers. For the newly made lole, we are often tasked with keeping and caring for them ourselves after Merrie Monarch. A few of my favorite pieces are a red kahiko top and skirt that we sewed and printed ourselves, a white and purple dress made by our fashion designer hula sister, and a pāpale lauhala (lauhala hat) woven by a hulu kupuna, an esteemed elder. All these lole tell a story – when it was sewn, who made it, who wore it and what hula it was created for.
As with our lole, our kumu chooses which lei we wear each year. Often this means fresh lei we make ourselves with palai and other native plants. Sometimes it’s appropriate to make and wear lei hulu – beautiful lei of hundreds of feathers. Kumu learned how to make lei hulu years ago, and she taught us in turn. I started making lei hulu as a teenager, slowly growing my skill set and small collection of lei. Among them are my very first golden goose feather lei hulu poepoe (a round, fluffy style) and a red and gold rosebud-style lei that resembles a fresh lei hala (pandanus). Each lei requires meticulous work, patience, and time. These lei represent my hula journey and how much I’ve learned along the way.
Giving cards and makana are one way we express aloha to our kumu, our kōkua crew, hula sister “roomies” in Hilo, and supportive ‘ohana members. The gifts I’ve given and received are simple but meaningful: a small, lidded plastic box with my name written on it in paint pen, intended to hold bobby pins – from a dearly departed hula auntie who was a devoted member of our kōkua crew; a handsome blue and white aloha shirt found at the Civic Center craft fair – for one of our dedicated van drivers; a black bomber jacket with an ʻiwa bird design – from my kumu, and made by a local designer and friend of the hālau; and many, many cards and notes with personal messages from my kumu, hula sisters, hula aunties and other loved ones. These keepsakes represent the aloha and kākoʻo we share.
All these tangible items are priceless because of the memories they evoke. They remind me of my hula family, our time together, and the kuleana that comes with being a haumāna hula. When you’re onstage at Merrie Monarch, you represent your kumu, hālau, ʻohana and hula lineage. But for me, no matter the outcome of the competition, the ʻike or knowledge shared and memories made are the real prizes.
Making a lei hulu (feather lei) means investing hours of detailed work – dyed goose feathers are tied to a cotton cord base one at time. Miala wore this completed lei poʻo (head lei) for Hālau Mōhala ʻIlima’s hula kahiko (ancient hula) presentation at Merrie Monarch in 2016.